It might seem a little bit self-serving to write an article about how to to hire a strategic planning consultant, in that those are the services we provide. Given that’s what we do, however, we have a bit of a unique perspective in seeing how different organizations approach the task of finding consulting support. We see what works, and we observe what doesn’t—and often face a struggle with the unintended consequences of poor procurement choices. In the interests of making the process easier for everyone, we thought we would share our perspective.
In the interests of full disclosure, it would also probably help to identify what prompted the article. One method that is frequently used to obtain consulting services is the Request for Proposals (RFP). RFPs are particularly used in the public and not-for-profit sectors, although we do also see the private sector use them from time to time. By design, they are intended to be open, transparent, objective and defensible. In reality, they are rarely any of those.
A recent RFP that I received became the target of more than a little bit of frustration on my part, mostly because it was the sixth time I had seen it in the last year. To clarify: this was the first time this particular organization had issued an RFP, but the definition of the services being sought was word-for-word identical with the RFPs of five other organizations. It would appear that there is a sample making the rounds that organizations are using as a model, although I do wonder whether it’s being shared with people that the originator doesn’t like very much, because it’s not a particularly good model to work from.
What it says, in a nutshell, is this: the organization is looking for strategic planning consultation support. The want long-term, medium-term and short-term elements and a means of measurement. Consultation with stakeholders is really important to them, but they don’t know what they want, they won’t make a decision until after they award a contract and they are looking for recommendations. And they want a fixed price proposal.
Quite literally, that is all there is. In most instances that I have seen this RFP used, there is no information about who the organization is, its history, or its experience in strategic planning. There is often no indication of whether a strategic plan exists, or how mature the organization’s practices are. There is typically little to no discussion of the business or operations of the organization, its structure or who will be involved in the development of the strategic plan. There is no reflection on whether what is being looked for is a facilitated process, or a consultant-driven development exercise. It is unclear whether the strategic plan that results will be evolutionary or revolutionary, or how critical a new strategy is to the on-going success of the organization. All of the things that I, for one, would genuinely want and need to understand if I was to produce a strong and relevant proposal.
A strategic plan is one of the most critical deliverables an organization will produce. More importantly, the process of strategic planning is hugely invaluable in inspiring a level of conversation and discussion within the executive team and the board of directors that day-to-day operational discussions typically don’t make possible. Who is hired to support this process is therefore a crucial decision. It’s not one that should be taken lightly. That doesn’t just mean that you as a customer need to find out who they are. You need to help them understand who you are, what you expect and the type of engagement you are looking for.
If I was to be delighted by the contents of an RFP for strategic planning services, this is what I would hope to see:
- Who are you as an organization? What do you do, who do you do it for, and what is your history as an organization?
What are the values and principles that you hold most dear as an organization? What do you stand for, and what does this mean in terms of what you need to see in a strategic plan? Do the values that you have defined make sense and do they guide appropriate behaviours or do they need to be revisited?
- What’s your vision and mission as an organization? How relevant are these statements for you? To what extent do they play a role in governing decisions today? Are they open to being revised, refreshed or wholly re-written?
- What is your history in strategic planning? How long have you been doing it for, and what role does it play within the organization? When was the last strategic plan developed, and what has been its impact on the organization?
- What are you looking for in a strategic plan this time? Is this a refresh, or a total re-write? Is the organization expecting to incrementally build on past successes, does it need to make some difficult and significant choices, or does it completely need to reinvent itself?
- Who is leading the strategic planning process? Is this driven by the board, by senior management or by both? Who from each of these groups will be involved, and what level of engagement is required and expected of them?
- Who are your stakeholders? What involvement do you expect them to have in the strategic planning process? Does their involvement need to be a check-in on relative engagement and satisfaction, or are you needing to test the waters on potentially radical changes?
- To what extent will employees be involved in the planning or consultation process? How much input do you expect them to have, and in what form? Will they be included in the consultation process? Do they have a role in the planning process?
- What needs to be contained within the strategic plan? Do you have an existing format you expect to be adhered to, or are you looking for innovative ways to better express and explore your desired future?
- How does the strategic plan need to connect with other management systems? Do you have a means of prioritizing and making decisions about the work you do coming out of the strategic plan? Do you have the execution discipline in place to realize your goals? Do you have a measurement framework that lets you assess progress and demonstrate realization of value? Is building these capabilities part of what you are hiring someone to support?
At the same time, there is a question of exactly what information is needed to be able to qualify and evaluate prospective firms. Certainly, it is possible to ask for every possible piece of information imaginable, and expect to have that information cross-tabulated three ways (this does, sadly, happen at times). But that doesn’t help you as a recipient that needs to read and evaluate the information in a proposal, any more than it helps the consultant who is writing it. Focus on the essentials of what you need to know. For extra points, ask for that in as clear, focussed and brief a manner as possible; not only does that make your job easier, but it tests their ability to clearly and concisely communicate complex information.
If I were on the other side of the hiring process, this is what I would want to know:
- Who are you as an organization, and what is your experience and philosophy of strategic planning?
- Who are you proposing as resources, and what is their experience and expertise?
- What is your approach to strategic planning? What biases, perspectives and processes do you bring to the table?
- What’s your understanding of who we are as a customer? What’s your understanding of what we want out of this engagement?
- How will you approach this engagement? What process will you use, what deliverables will you produce and what support do you require?
- How long will it take, how much will it cost, and what assumptions did you make in developing your estimate (and your proposal)?
- How are you going to manage the engagement? How will you keep us informed of progress, resolve challenges and manage risks?
- What are similar projects that you have done in the recent past (at least three)? Who are your references, and how do we contact them?
- What is the value that you provide? What makes you unique and different from anyone else that might respond?
That is the core essence of what should matter. In a perfect world, all of that information could be communicated in a half-dozen (if brevity is valued) and certainly no more than thirty pages. Not only does it provide a clear understanding of who the consultant is, it does so in a way that—if they are on the ball—lets them showcase themselves in their best light, while being clear about what really matters: how they will help you.
Being clear about who you are, what you want and what you hope to see in a consultant’s qualifications isn’t just courtesy. It helps candidates do a better job of making sure that you have the information you need as a decision maker. It makes sure that what they propose is relevant and cost effective, and it discourages them from proposing work and services that you don’t need and shouldn’t be paying for.
A cut-and-paste RFP is very much likely to result in a cut-and-paste response. That isn’t particularly helpful, it isn’t overly thoughtful, and it isn’t terribly relevant. The entire process simply becomes a hurdle to be surmounted by both parties, and moves the meaningful discussions of what is actually wanted, what will be done and what it will take to do to the next stage. If the intent of the RFP is to be objective, transparent and open, then this approach falls well short of the mark.
Without question, it would take time to produce an RFP that outlines what I’ve suggested here. It’s harder work than just cutting and pasting some text that looks plausible, and shipping it out the door. It is going to force you to think about where you are, what you really want and the kind of consultant at you need to help you. And that’s the point. The clearer you are about what you fundamentally require, the better I am at being able to help explain why I’m best suited to support you. Or else come to the realization that I’m not best suited, and therefore choose not to respond. Both of those are positive outcomes.